A Conversation with Amy Laria and The Wax Paper
In 1974, Studs Terkel published, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. In the spirit of that landmark publication, The Wax Paper editors have gone into the field to continue Mr. Terkel’s original quest.
Amy has owned Flo, a restaurant in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, for five years. She speaks in explosive bursts of words, frequently smacks the bar when she laughs, and touches the arm of the person she’s talking to to highlight important parts of her stories.
When I was 15, I was a bar back at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park. I suppose that was my first job. I did sell popcorn when I was a kid at the bank where my dad worked. He was a bartender when I was a kid. He was always in the restaurant and bar business on the side.
I went to Concordia (University Chicago) then Northeastern (Illinois University) to be a teacher. In order to pay for college, I bartended. My first bartending job was at a titty bar on Mannheim (Laughs). Mannheim Road is known for titty bars. They did lingerie shows and mud wrestling on the weekends. They were supposed to keep their lingerie on, but the regulars would tip them extra to show their boobs. I started there when I was 18.
When I was 21 I worked at a pizza place in Schiller Park. It was a 4 am bar too. It was called Mama K’s. Half was a bar and half was a pizza place. They had really good meatball sandwiches and pizza. It was family owned. Two brothers owned it. Their wives worked there. Their kids worked there.
After college, I taught Kindergarten (Laughs). I liked it, but I was always getting in trouble with the school board and whatnot. When it was shitty outside and we had to stay inside, I’d put the kids in chairs and have relay races. I’d get into trouble for stuff like that. We went to the grocery store once (Laughs). We were going to make breakfast. I guess you’re not supposed to do that without the parent’s consent (Laughs). It was only two blocks away. (Laughs)
I taught for a few years, but I still bartended at night because I didn’t make much money teaching. Finally I asked myself, “Why am I doing both of these things when I could do one I really liked.”
I started at the Green Onion in Oak Park. They had live jazz and cigars in the basement. I bartended there and started managing. Then I worked as a bar manager at Redfish, downtown at the corner of State and Kinzie. Redfish was a cajun restaurant chain. When I started working there, I saw that somebody was stealing, and everybody was turning a blind eye. I finally figured it out. Every time Chris, the general manager of all the Redfish’s in the Midwest, was in town, there’d be money was missing. So I started documenting it. Finally, I told my boss Jeff (the general manager of the Chicago Redfish). Jeff talked to other general managers from the other restaurants. It got back to Chris. So Chris just turned around and fired Jeff. I was like, “I’m sorry Jeff.” (Laughs) So then I went to Chris’ boss. They were friends, and he tried to sweep it under the rug. I stayed on it. I was going to get this motherfucker busted. I went to Human Resources. Human Resources dug into it and realized that between all of the stores, they were missing 80K that year. And they attributed it all to him. This had probably been going on for years. It was bizarre that I was only there two weeks, and I knew that he was stealing. First of all, his boss was just kind of dick about it. Everybody was just kind of dicks about it for some reason. A lot of bizarre things go on in the restaurant business.
In this business, there’s a lot of boy’s clubs. I’ve dealt with it many times. They always talked about sports. I’d come in to Redfish and say, “Hi,” and they’d ignore me. So I ended up quitting and went to Cru, which Debbie Sharp owned. I worked at Cru as a server and a bartender. Debbie owned Feast, Goddess and the Grocer, and Cru. Eat Your Hearts Out was her original company. Cru doesn’t exist anymore, and she just closed her last Feast.
I definitely didn’t want to work in somebody else’s restaurant the rest of my life. A friend told me there was a restaurant in West Town for sale on Craigslist (Flo). When this opportunity for Flo came, I went to Debbie. I knew she wanted to get rid of me. She was trying to switch the staff over downtown to a young hip. We weren’t friends, but we were friendly. She still would have fired me in a heartbeat. I told Debbie it’s only going to cost you 620 grand to get me out from behind this bar without a lawsuit. (Laughs) It was 150 grand for the business and 620 grand for the building. She said, “Fine, whatever, I’ll take a look at the building.”
I would ask Debbie how to do this and how to do that. And she’d just say yes. She didn’t help me out. Because she only had a small part of the business, she would just say, “Good luck.” She did tell me that people will always steal from you, you just have to control it. Whether its people walking stuff out the door, people stealing actual money, or people not ringing stuff up. She said you just have to control it, keep it in check. She also said never fire anybody. Always have somebody else do it. You cannot be the bad guy. You’re the owner. You don’t want to risk have somebody being pissed at you. They’ll throw rocks through the window.
I knew Flo was going to work. It was an established place with loyal customers, and there were a bunch of easy things I could do to make it better. There was no beer. There were trinkets everywhere and they were covered in dust. And they didn’t do any dinner business. I mean zero. Those were easy fixes. We didn’t change that much. They used to open cans, canned beans. They bought bags of chips. $3.50 for a bag. You can get a thing of corn tortillas for 20 cents, and they taste better. They didn’t even have hatch green chiles. They just had the poblano sauce and red chile. And we raised the prices cause everything was like $3.50.
A Flo regular for the former owners wasn’t happy that I took over Flo, and she started making shit up. She posted all these Yelps claiming that the bartender was staring at her boobs. Andrew is gay. He didn’t stare at her boobs. (Laughs) Over a Fourth of July weekend, while we were closed, she would walk by, check-in on Yelp, and write horrible things. She was out to get me. Our whole Yelp page, check-ins and reviews were her. I called up Yelp and yelled, “This is fucking absurd.” They said they couldn’t do anything about it. So I hired an attorney to go after her. The attorney forced Yelp to find out who she was and she got banned from Yelp.
The city is always a challenge. The health inspector, this Hispanic guy, came in because of a complaint from the Yelp woman. She said she ate oysters on Monday and got sick. So this guy comes in and I told him “I’m not open on Mondays, and we don’t serve oysters.” But he kept cutting me off. Then, he proceeded to go through the restaurant with my cooks, speaking Spanish with them. I followed them as he spoke to Danny (Flo’s kitchen manager and cook) in Spanish. I was like, “I’m right here. I’m the owner.” Leonard (Flo’s general manager) came in and I told him, “This guy’s pissing me off.” Leonard said that he would deal with it. The guy immediately shook Leonard’s hand. He wouldn’t shake my hand.
There's always something sketchy going on in this industry, but I love food and drink and the people. And I'm good at it.